The Knox County Ethics Committee decided in a unanimous vote Wednesday to move forward on a citizen complaint that alleges two county commissioners improperly accepted a free round of golf and golf-related gifts.
The committee formally found in a voice vote that an ethics violation had been lodged against Charles Busler and Bob Thomas. That's part of an official review process that features several steps.
Committee members also agreed Wednesday morning at the City County Building to meet again April 4.
At that meeting, Richard "Bo" Bennett will have a chance to present proof about his complaint against the commissioners, who deny wrongdoing. Busler and Thomas also have the option to attend, bring lawyers and tell their own side of the story if they like, said Jonathan Cooper, who chairs the Ethics Committee.
The committee can refer any findings to County Commission if they determine the men violated the county ethics policy regarding acceptance of gifts. The group does not have law enforcement authority.
Several members of the committee said the allegations deserved further exploration.
Bennett last fall filed a complaint based on reports he'd read and heard that Busler and Thomas accepted a free round of golf during a pro-am day in August at the Knoxville Open tournament at Fox Den Country Club.
Busler and Thomas have acknowledged to 10News that they played the golf round. They have said they didn't think they did anything wrong. But Thomas said as a show of good faith after questions were raised he donated $500 to the Red Cross.
Busler and Thomas were last-minute invitees by Priority Ambulance, according to an investigation by the Knox County Law Director's Office. Priority had a chance to invite people to play on a four-man team during the pro-am day because it was providing for free an ambulance at the tournament, which is a fundraiser.
The commissioners paid nothing for their day of play. Priority paid nothing for the team. Priority was not a sponsor of the tournament.
The men also had the chance to take free donated items at a tent with a reported value of $500, although the investigation showed there was debate about the true value of the free items.
Bennett alleged the value of the play and gifts far exceeded what county policy allows.
Bennett, now a candidate for Knox County Circuit Court clerk and a former candidate against Busler for his commission seat, also noted that the men took part in a vote to extend the service contract of the county's current ambulance provider -- AMR.
AMR last summer moved to exercise an option in its contract that allowed it to seek early extension its agreement with Knox County. County personnel endorsed the five-year extension in a recommendation to commission.
In August, after the golf game, Busler raised objections at a commission workshop.
He said he'd gotten complaints from constituents about AMR's service and rates.
The following week, Busler and Thomas were among four commissioners who voted against extending AMR's contract.
Priority has been viewed as a potential bidder to a county contract. It's possible at some point they could have sought the county's business if AMR hadn't gotten the five-year extension.
David Buuck, Knox County chief deputy law director, said he typically would have tossed Bennett's complaint because it appeared to be based on hearsay and not direct, personal knowledge. Law Director Bud Armstrong said he found flaws in Bennett's complaint.
Buuck said Bennett also declined to offer the names of two people who he'd said had knowledge about the incident.
Buuck said Bennett suggested the commissioners may have broken state law, which elevated the accusation. That's a question for the district attorney, but Buuck said the Law Director's Office decided to assign an investigator and conduct interviews of various people.
They didn't interview Busler and Thomas, who is running for county mayor.
"We had an absolute duty to vet this thing out the way we did," Buuck said.
He said because the complaint appeared to be politically related and was a "hot potato," authorities thought it best that the complaint be reviewed and presented to the Ethics Committee.
Some committee members including Michael Covington, Barbara Chandler and Gina Oster said Wednesday morning they thought it was worth looking into what Bennett had to say.
There may have been nothing illegal done, said Chandler. But there's a question about the ethics of accepting the free play and donated gifts, she said.
Elected officials need to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, she said.
"As elected officials, one of the most valuable things that we have is public trust," Chandler said. "And when that public trust is violated, it's an indirect ethical problem."
Said Oster: "The perception to the community does not look good. The Ethics Committee, I believe, has to decide what is right and wrong."
She continued: "In my personal opinion, I think that it's worth looking into a little bit farther just because it needs to be open and there needs to be transparency of the way that this is going."
The committee actually gets few complaints.
Cooper said after hearing proof and any argument that anyone wants to make, the committee will determine whether Bennett's complaint has merit.
"We can certainly ask questions. We can request documents. We can't compel anyone. We don't have subpoena powers," Cooper said.
A Knoxville defense attorney, Cooper said whether the complaint is fully resolved April 4 depends on how much proof is presented that day.